November 6, 1996 - Playing the Piano
Mimi (my grandmother) played the piano. She started young. By the age of 9, she was the local church organist. Her legs were so short she had to tie wooden blocks to her feet so she could reach the pedals. If the congregation had trouble singing something, she just nudged the piece into another, more comfortable key.
But her heart wasn't in sacred music. Mimi liked boogie-woogie. She had a bass line that just STRUTTED up and down the low keys. I loved that stuff, and I loved to watch Mimi play it.
Because of my obvious interest, when I was 8 years old my mother rented a piano. I took lessons for about 6 months. Suddenly we couldn't afford it anymore, and the piano went back.
When I turned 12, the family bought a piano, and I took lessons for another two and a half years. But frankly, I didn't enjoy it as much.
Why? Well, partly because just as I was learning my first serious piece -- "Sonatina in G," written by Beethoven when he was a child -- I was also reading a Beethoven biography. At first, this really spurred me on to dedicated practicing. I wanted to BE Beethoven.
But -- and I remember the exact moment -- shortly after I turned 13 I realized with a kind of cold shock that it was too late for me to be a child prodigy.
This sounds ridiculous now, but at the time I thought that if I couldn't be Beethoven, then I really wasn't interested in playing the piano at all.
In an effort to hold my attention, my long-suffering piano teacher gave me a few other songs that he'd refused to give me before (he was a strict classical teacher). I learned "Alley Cat," and a Scott Joplin piece. He even let me work on some sheet music Mimi gave me, called "Getting Sentimental Over You." At times, I grudgingly enjoyed these. But somehow, it was too late. Shortly after I turned 14, I quit.
It wasn't until this fall, 28 years after I stopped taking lessons, that I began to spend some serious time at the keyboard again.
Originally, I had planned to write a book. A publisher offered me a contract. I'd cleared aside my schedule. I had written up a fairly detailed outline of the chapters, and gotten a solid start on the research. Then, as part of our long range planning process, our library board decided that if we wanted to keep up with the demand for services in Douglas County, we needed to undertake some serious capital projects. We didn't have the money to do them. After a lot of looking at the alternatives, we decided that we needed to go back to the voters.
Directing a library takes some time and attention. Working on a political campaign does, too -- and you can't do it while you're at work. That's your own time (as are these columns). After putting in some 40-50 hours a week at work, then putting in another 10-30 hours a week on the campaign, depending, I just didn't have the mental oomph to write a book as well. (The subject of the book also related to libraries.)
You'd think that all I would want to do on those odd hours off is lie down. Sometimes, I did, but mostly to read. I found that if I tried to just relax I worried about the job or about the campaign. I needed to have something else to think about.
Then, one afternoon, I sat down at the piano. I dug out my old classical music book and tried to play something I'd never played before. This is called "sight reading." To my astonishment, I did much better than I had when I was 14. It was such a relief to be learning and thinking about something new. It was such a relief not to use words.
To encourage me, my wife went out and bought a whole book of songs by a lyricist named Mitchell Parish. It included a song I remember Mimi playing (and had told my wife about): "Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia." At about the same time, I ran across a book called "Piano lessons : Music, Love & True Adventures," by NPR regular Noah Adams. Adams was trying to learn to play piano for the first time. (The library owns the book, incidentally, and I highly recommend it.) Adams was 53 years old. While some people may find his approach a little bizarre (step one: buy a $15,000 Steinway Grand!), I found it oddly inspirational.
Over the course of the campaign I learned some 6 or 8 new songs, mostly from the 1920s and 30s.
So OK, I'll never be Beethoven. I won't even be as good as Mimi. But my, those old songs are lovely.